Plain and simple, killing is wrong

By  Eleonore Fournier-Tombs, Catholic Register Special
  • April 9, 2010
{mosimage}Autobiography of an Execution, by David R. Dow (Twelve, 320 pages, hard cover, $29.99.)

David Dow may not believe in God, but he does believe in justice, love and compassion — and he certainly has a conscience. A death penalty lawyer, he works in Texas for a non-profit organization that attempts to save inmates from capital punishment.

Dow does not try to save the prisoners because he feels for them personally. In fact, he dislikes most of his clients. But, as he makes very clear, they do not deserve to die, and certainly not through a biased, racist and classist criminal justice system.

It may be surprising to some that not all Catholics share his opinion on capital punishment. There are certainly notable abolitionists, among them Sr. Helen Préjean, who did her MA at Saint Paul University in Ottawa. Unlike Préjean, however, who wrote several books including The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, Dow does not believe that the death penalty should be abolished just because death row prisoners might be innocent. He believes that most of his clients are guilty, often of the most horrendous crimes. Instead, he fights against the essence of capital punishment itself, 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

{sa 0446562068}Autobiography of an Execution is not an autobiography per se. It’s a snippet of Dow’s life, told in an engrossing style that landed it in the True Crime section at Chapters. As Dow explains in the preface, he has changed the names of clients, collaborators, lawyers, judges, cities and crimes in order to protect the identity of those involved. He gives his clients, the prisoners on death row, Old Testament names like Ezekiel and Jeremy and gives horrifyingly detailed accounts of their sins.

Dedicating his life to saving completely broken human beings doesn’t clear Dow’s conscience. To the contrary. He struggles to be a good father, a good husband and to allow himself the daily jog, steak or glass of bourbon.

Immersed in the murky depths of an indifferent justice system and his own inner turmoil, he relies on his wife’s steady guidance and his seven-year-old son’s poignant innocence and honesty.

The book’s main intrigue develops around the case of a prisoner whose guilt Dow comes to question. He maintains that his job is to keep his clients from being executed by the state, not to decide on their innocence or even to keep them alive (some die of disease or commit suicide).

But, perhaps like Préjean, he puts a little more of himself into this race against the clock to save one of the few clients that he actually likes. It’s not difficult to become as fascinated by Dow’s ethical saga as he seems to be, or impressed by his commitment to justice and to truth.

Even though Canada abolished capital punishment in 1976, during the last few years the number of Canadians supporting it has risen. In 2007, 44 per cent of Canadians surveyed by Angus Reid stated that they supported the death penalty. Barely three years later, this number jumped to 62 per cent.

The state system that abolitionists are most shocked by is of course in Texas, which has executed 449 inmates since 1976. There are currently 342 people on death row, most of whom, according to Dow, are black or Hispanic and many of whom are mentally disabled.

It is not difficult, however, to understand the emotions that fuel proponents of capital punishment — be they American or Canadian. It may not be an effective deterrent to criminals, but it seems to be a natural human response to want revenge when faced with evil.

In 1980, the United States’ Conference of Catholic Bishops responded to this issue with a powerful message: “It is also a challenge for us as a people to find ways of dealing with criminals in ways that manifest intelligence and compassion rather than power and vengeance.”

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has also taken an official stance against the death penalty.

Today, most Canadians take for granted that no criminals are ever executed by the Canadian state. However, justice systems reflect the values of the societies they are meant to preserve. And collective principles are known to shift surreptitiously, particularly when no one really pauses to consider their importance.

Any person contemplating reinstating capital punishment has not read Dow’s book. Gripping, convincing and intelligent, Dow is — as his wife suggests — as truthful as he could be without years of therapy.  The result is a story that is raw, certainly shocking and extremely current.

(Fournier-Tombs is a freelance writer in Ottawa.)

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